The Tree-Hugging Woodworker
Sean Woolsey loves trees. He celebrates the perfect imperfection of the trees' inner beauty by making wood furniture by hand in California.
Woolsey, now in his early thirties, has always made things. From sewing clothes to building skateboard ramps to baking bread. In 2010, he began making furniture, out of curiosity more than anything else. He deconstructed old furniture to learn how things are made. The first real piece of furniture he built himself was a writing desk for his then-girlfriend. She liked the gift, evidently. She married him.
Woolsey’s work and life is strongly influenced by the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which recognizes the beauty of imperfection as imprint of time. To the wood artist, wabi-sabi is embodied in the naturalness of the uneven, asymetrical touches to remind us of our own and the trees' perfect imperfections. In contrast to mass-producing furniture, which can take away these imperfections, Woolsey chooses to show the truth and rawness of wood, worked by hand.
The California native, who admits to obsessing over the quality of every piece that leaves his atelier, has always been captivated by the beauty of nature’s artistry and gains inspiration from the grandeur of a mature tree and the elegance contained in its wood. In his work, he has stayed true to the same simple ideal over the years: He designs and makes things he wants in his own home. And today, that's the place the entrepreneur shares with his wife, Sara, in Costa Mesa, California.
We caught up with the designer, furniture-maker, and fine artist only a short time after the birth of his daughter, Ondine, to talk about what home means to him, what traditions make his his modern products timeless, what inspires his designs, and more.
A conversation with Sean Woolsey
Who are you, in a nutshell?
A husband, father, artist, woodworker, tinkerer, artist, businessman, creative, friend, surfer, ping pong enthusiast, amateur knife-maker, bread-maker, pizza-creator, dreamer, risk-taker, traveler, tree-lover, ever curious human.
How did you grow curious about designing and making furniture?
It started very naturally and slowly. I was burnt out on making clothing and running my own clothing line. I was drawn to creating things with my own hands and to being more connected with what I was making, instead of just designing it and having someone else make it. I have a real obsession with creating, whether it be a pizza oven in my yard, furniture, a knife, or my own house.
"I have a real obsession with creating, whether it be a pizza oven in my yard, furniture, a knife, or my own house."
What inspires your designs?
So many things and people, but mostly the inspiration is rooted in making furniture that I would like in my own house and like to own for years, not just what is on trend. Much of the inspiration comes from the act of designing and tinkering around. Designs evolve, ideas feed other ideas, and things move with movement.
"Designs evolve, ideas feed other ideas, and things move with movement."
Your modern products appear rooted in tradition. What timeless merit drives your practice?
Functionality, with an utter respect and appreciation of materials and craft.
Is there a continuous theme to your designs?
I don't think so. I think, the only theme is making the best quality products that we can. The theme of materials and design is always changing and progressing.
How do you choose and source your materials?
The wood we use is predominantly American hardwood, such as walnut, white oak, or maple. We purchase most of it locally and occasionally purchase directly from mills, usually on the East Coast. We feel honored to work with wood, and we love trees. We plant a tree for every piece of wood furniture we sell, in honor of the customer, in partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation. It is our way of giving back to nature what it has loaned to us. We also work with steel, brass, glass, leather, et cetera. And we are always looking for new and fun ways to incorporate mixed materials and creating a story with the materials. We are fortunate to have many other talented crafts people locally, who help us with these other materials.
"We feel honored to work with wood, and we love trees."
What makes you a modernist?
The way of thinking about clean, good design that is functional, beautiful, and accessible — and designing to that.
What does quiet design mean to you?
Quiet design to me means designing slowly and enjoying the process. I often enjoy the process more than the end result, as many artists would.
"Quiet design to me means designing slowly and enjoying the process."
Talk about the immensely beautiful fine art pieces in your Copper Series and their synergy with your furniture-making.
The art is a release for me. It always has been. It is the complete opposite of furniture-making, which is very accurate, wrong or right, and precise. The artwork on copper is fluid, free-flowing, expressive, and experimental. Mistakes often make it better or more interesting. The Copper Series was inspired by the ocean, and its meaning to me. The series is ongoing and ever-evolving but always the same size and always inspired by the ocean, whether it be the color, movements, or captivating calm or power it holds.
Describe your dream home...
A home that is comfortable, in a beautiful location in the mountains or desert, with treasures that we have collected all over the world, and open to sharing meals with friends and family.
What does “home” mean to you?
A refuge where we can relax, recharge, make memories, share stories, laugh, cry, and feel good about it all.
What’s your favorite place in the world?
Oh, so many. I have been fortunate to travel a lot internationally. I am really drawn to Japan, and their culture and way of life. To me, Japan is simple, humble in its design yet meticulously thought out, timeless in its approach to craft. And the Japanese are the most focused people I have ever met. The mixture of it all is super intoxicating and inspiring.
What’s most important to you in life?
God. My family. Friends. Creative pursuits. Having fun.
Who is your design icon?
There are so many. The short list is Wharton Esherick, Dieter Rams, Robert Rauscheberg, Lloyd Kahn, Sunray Kelly, Jay Nelson, and Jean Prouve.
Who inspires you to be the person you are?
My wife and my friends largely inspire me to be who I am. As iron sharpens iron, they are constantly encouraging me, whether they know it or not.
What is your life philosophy?
This quote by Mark Twain sums up a lot of my life approach: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
What are you working on these days?
We are constantly working on new designs; right now, some chairs. I am also working on some copper art, as well as a new art series that is going to be really fun. Also, we just had a beautiful baby girl three weeks ago, so... working on that right now (laughs). △